THE House of Bishops has agreed in principle to commend prayers of blessing for same-sex couples, but the authorisation of new stand-alone services for such blessings is to require a long and uncertain synodical process, it was revealed on Monday evening.
The House of Bishops met on Monday to decide the next steps in the Living in Love and Faith (LLF) process, after which a press release was issued by Church House, Westminster.
It was not immediately clear exactly what the announcement meant in practice: the statement said that the House had “agreed in principle” that the Prayers of Love and Faith “should be commended for use”. It is understood that formal commendation will not occur until after the Synod has met in November.
The requirement of a full synodical process for the authorisation of special services in which the prayers are featured does not mean that the prayers themselves cannot be used between their commendation and the authorisation of the stand-alone services: Canon B5 allows for ministers to use their discretion to make alterations to existing services (News, 19 January).
The blessings were proposed in January, and agreed in principle at a meeting of the General Synod in February (News, 9 February).
Various working groups were subsequently convened to work on a final draft of the prayers and questions about what new pastoral guidance should be in place, as well as what protections should be offered to those who felt unable to use the new prayers.
The Church House statement late on Monday said that new pastoral guidance would be brought to the Synod’s meeting in London next month, but provided no details of what it would contain.
Likewise, there was little substantial update on what forms of reassurance would be offered to those who opposed the introduction of the prayers. The press release simply stated that there was “further work under way to explore further forms of pastoral reassurance and formal structural pastoral provision to ensure the conscience of everyone is respected”.
The statement says that the House of Bishops “gave serious consideration” to approving special services of blessing for experimental use under Canon B5(A) rather than pursuing the full synodical process under Canon B2.
The authorisation process under B2 requires consultation with dioceses and two-thirds approval in all three Houses of the Synod — Laity, Clergy, and Bishops — and is not expected to be completed until 2025.
It is far from certain that it will achieve the necessary support in the Synod: in February’s vote, the proposal to adopt prayers of blessing for same-sex couples achieved a majority in all three Houses, but only a two-thirds majority in the House of Bishops.
The B5(A) route would probably have delayed the start of the B2 process until a new Synod had been elected, potentially affecting the likelihood that the services would be authorised.
The use of B5(A) to approve special forms of service was opposed by a coalition of groups connected to the C of E in a letter to Bishops sent in August (News, 1 September).
The same group, which includes the present and former Vicars of Holy Trinity, Brompton, wrote to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in the summer, arguing that it would be “unlawful, unconstitutional, and illegitimate” for them merely to commend blessings for same-sex couples (News, 5 July) without full synodical approval.
The group threatened legal action if the Bishops persisted with their plans to approve the prayers without going through Canon B2.
The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, chair of the LLF steering group, said: “The House of Bishops’ decisions today continue to implement Synod’s vote to recognise publicly the commitment of same-sex couples and to pray God’s blessing for them.
“They have agreed to commend Prayers of Love and Faith and also considered the best way to authorise special standalone services. Having carefully considered the legal, theological and pastoral implications of possible approaches, the bishops concluded that it would ultimately be clearer to proceed directly to consideration under Canon B2.
“We acknowledge that there are some who would like this process to move faster, however the move to full authorisation will provide clarity and wide consultation ahead of a final decision by synod in 2025.
“I know that for some, these measures go too far and, for others, not nearly far enough and the bishops discussed the need for pastoral reassurance, and for some the need for formal structural pastoral provision.
“But the heart of the gospel is reconciliation — our desire is to remain together as one Church in our uncertainty, finding ways to live well with our different perspectives and convictions.”
Several prominent campaigners for LGBT+ inclusion in the Church have reacted with dismay to the news that a lengthy process would be required for special services to be approved.
Jayne Ozanne, a lay member of the General Synod, wrote on social media: “This is an absolute farce. The bishops are doing all they can to obfuscate & delay, proving yet again that the Church of England does not really truly want to welcome LGBT+ people. Synod made a clear decision in February, which is not being respected.
”Fears about hypothetical legal challenges have won out, showing we are an institution that is run by lawyers not bishops. It’s way past time for us to have a vote of No Confidence in our leadership — who have lost the trust of so many of us, with many voting with their feet.”
On Tuesday, the Archbishop of York acknowledged that some “may read this as a slowing down of the process”, but said that the decisions made wouldn’t necessarily delay the use of the prayers.
“The prayers will be commended, and so therefore they will be able to be used,” he said, but explained that the Bishops felt it was felt necessary for the stand-alone services to go through a formal process in order to “give security and assurance to the whole church”.
“The Church of England cares for everybody: this is not about the winner takes all,” he said. The Bishops wanted to “ensure that the Church stays together”.
On Tuesday, the national director of the Church of England Evangelical Council, Canon John Dunnett, described the Church House press release as “slippery, at best, on several central matters”.
“I am concerned that the House of Bishops might be pulling the wool over the eyes of the General Synod by planning to introduce changes through the pastoral guidance after November that are tantamount to doctrinal hand grenades,” he said.
“The news that the House of Bishops has agreed to commend the prayers asking for God’s blessing for same sex couples is deeply concerning. The House of Bishops seems intent on pushing full steam ahead toward something that is contrary to both Scripture and the historic and apostolic teaching of the Church of England. . .
“More than ever, we are convinced that the only way ahead for the Church of England is to pursue a settlement for differentiation that protects and provides a safe space for those on both sides of the debate.”
On Friday, before the Bishops met, the Archbishop of Canterbury told the Church Times: “The House is going to be looking at the very complicated issues of how, while motivating and holding the Church together, and holding our ecumenical relationships, interfaith relationships, intra-Communion relationships together, we act in a way that within England is most faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
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